October 12, 2018

Relaxing in Ryogoku

Eastern Tokyo's Ryogoku is home to both the sumo area and the Awesome Edo-Tokyo Museum. The area makes for a great half-day adventure in Tokyo.

Sumo wrestlers get out of a taxi in Tokyo's Ryogoku area

Welcome back to yet another one of my in-depth area guides. Today, we will be taking a look at a section of Tokyo known as Ryogoku. Home to both the Kokugikan Sumo Arena and the amazing Edo-Tokyo Museum, Ryogoku is one of many places in Tokyo that I have been looking to feature for some time now. Due to putting a higher priority on destinations outside of the capital, unfortunately I haven’t gotten around to sourcing the content for many of these sites just yet. In fact, my bucket list is literally filling up at a faster rate than I can empty it. Luckily for you though, I have recently found my travel plans FUBAR due to back-to-back typhoons so I had to resort to Ryogoku as a backup plan. With only a couple of hours before all hell broke loose, I managed to scrape together enough time to source the follow guide…

OK, so without further adieu, let’s get on with the show. As anyone who has visited can attest, the biggest feature that sets Ryogoku apart from other areas is its ties to sumo. Throughout much of Japanese history, sumo tournaments were held outdoors at shrines and temples. Starting in the late Meiji period (1868–1912) though, these matches were moved indoors and the first permanent sumo arena was built in the Ryogoku area. The current Kokugikan is the fourth incarnation of its kind to take up residence here and dates back to 1985. The facility can seat over 10,000 visitors and hosts three of the six major annual tournaments. If you can snag yourself a couple of tickets, I cannot more highly recommend that you go watch a few bouts.

In addition to its ties to sumo, Ryogoku was also historically important to Edo, the former name of modern day Tokyo. During the Edo period (1603–1868), Ryogoku was an area comparable to the likes of Ueno and Asakusa. Thanks to the development of the Ryogoku bridge, this region became a critical hub that connected the city of Edo with neighboring Shimosa Province. In fact, the Japanese characters for Ryogoku literally read “two provinces.” In addition to this prime real estate, those familiar with the legendary Chushingura story will be happy to know that Ryogoku has ties to the 47 Ronin too (but that’s a bit out of the scope for this article).

Getting to Tokyo’s Ryogoku

The Chuo Line passes though Tokyo’s Ryogoku Station

Let’s pause for a second to review how to get to Ryogoku. Unlike a lot of places that I feature on this blog, Ryogoku can be easily accessed in just a few minutes via a couple of different train lines. For most, the Toei Oedo Line will probably be the most convenient as it runs from Shinjuku and Roppongi through to Ryogoku. That said, JR rail pass holders might instead want to save a few hundred yen by opting to take the JR Chuo Line. As always, refer to the likes of Hyperdia or a similar service to find the best connecting routes. While Tokyo’s trains can often seem overwhelming, these tools make it easier to navigate your way throughout the city.

Before moving on to the main attractions, I want to take a second to recommend that you check out the Ryogoku Edo Noren. This charming collection of small restaurants is located in the JR Station Building and offers a whole host of specialty foods unique to Tokyo. Additionally, you’ll also find the tourist information desk located here should you require further information as well as a replica sumo ring. I highly suggest you pop in before starting your adventure or alternatively, on your return trip.

Ryogoku’s Sumo Culture

A chanko-nabe hot pot, the favored dish of Japanese sumo wrestlers

Perhaps Ryogoku’s most distinguishing feature is that it is one of a few locations where you can experience the culture of sumo. For starters, many of the wrestlers’ training facilities are located in and around Ryogoku. Known in Japanese simply as “heya” or “sumo-beya”, this local nomenclature gets loosely translated into English as stables or training quarters. Sumo regulations hold that all practitioners must belong to a heya which can range greatly in roster size. Due to the very high concentration of these heya within Ryogoku, it is quite common to see wrestlers out and about.

In addition to possibly catching a glimpse of a wrestler, Ryogoku also has multiple ways to partake in sumo culture. Chief among these is the tasty chanko nabe. Pictured above, this hot pot dish comes in many varieties but always consists of vegetables, seafood, and meat. Chanko-nabe is the staple food of sumo wrestlers and there are many restaurants in the Ryogoku area that feature this dish on their menu. From what I’ve read, many of these food establishments are actually managed by retired sumo wrestlers themselves making for a truly authentic experience.

Ryogoku’s Edo-Tokyo Museum

The impressive Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogo, Tokyo

Along with ties to Sumo, one of Ryogoku’s other draws is the fantastic Edo-Tokyo Museum. First opened in 1993, the museum chronicles the 400-year history of Tokyo. Beginning with the Edo period (1603–1868), the exhibits are curated in such a way that you’ll have the opportunity to learn all about the evolution of the city from the marshy backwater to the bustling metropolis. From the daily life of the common folk, to what it would have been like to live as a samurai, this museum tells it all. Though I have been to this museum a countless number of times, every time I return, I always walk away having learned something new.

Of course, one of my favorite things about the Edo-Tokyo Museum is that it is not limited to only telling the tale of the pre-modern period. In fact, the exhibit chronicles Tokyo’s history through the modern era as well. More specifically, the section that documents the story following the aftermath of World War II is particularly moving. Here you’ll learn about the savage fire bombings of Tokyo that were arguably more of an atrocity than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition to experiencing this sad legacy, you’ll also have the chance to view some solemn reminders of how quickly time passes, namely artifacts like Windows 95 or photographs from the turn of the millennium.

You’ll find the Edo-Tokyo Museum located here, right next to the Kokugikan Sumo Area. Entry to the permanent exhibit will run you 600 yen but you can also purchase a combination ticket that includes the temporary offerings. While not every exhibit is fully translated, there’s more than enough text in English to follow along without missing the content.

Attractions Near Ryogoku

The new Sumida Hokusai Museum in Ryogoku, Tokyo

In addition to the Edo-Tokyo museum and chasing Sumo wrestlers around town, there’s a variety of fun and interesting things to do in Ryogoku. Personally, I’m partial to just kicking it by the Sumida River. During midsummer, I’ve made some great memories of chilling by its banks and chatting all day with friends. That said, if you’re looking for more typical attractions, any of the following are bound to be a great addition to what I’ve covered thus far.

  • Sumida Hokusai Museum
    Pictured above, this museum opened in 2016 and is located in the birthplace of the master artist Hokusai Katsushika. Sumida Hokusai features a splendid exhibit of his works as well as some general information about the world of ukiyo-e itself. Entry will cost you 400 yen.
  • The Japanese Sword Museum
    Located next to the lovely Kyu-Yasuda Teien Garden, this museum exhibits a large collection of swords and related paraphernalia. Previously located in Shinjuku, the Japanese Sword Museum moved to its present location this year (2018). Entry is pretty steep at 1,000 yen but it’s well worth the fee if you’re a fan of Japanese swords.
  • Edo-yu Onsen
    Fellow onsen addicts, know that Ryogoku has its own public bathing facility that is equipped with a number of different baths. In this regard, it’s very similar to the former Oedo Onsen Monogatari sans the festival atmosphere. While not a must visit, it can be a good way to end the day. Entry will run you just over 2,000 yen but you can use the facility for as long as you’d like.

Until next time travelers…